TO START A WAR
How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq
By Robert Draper
In April 2003, after he had launched the invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush stood in the Oval Office reception room and watched the televised liberation of Basra, which serves as the country’s main port. Next to him was Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had warned Bush about the dangers of ousting Saddam Hussein from power. Smoke rose from the intelligence service headquarters. The city prison had been opened. Looters were filching desks, chairs and water tanks from state buildings. As he looked at the pictures, Bush was perplexed. He asked, “Why aren’t they cheering?”
In “To Start a War,” which is filled with such telling scenes, Robert Draper carefully examines the Bush administration’s illusions about Iraq. Draper is a writer at large for The New York Times Magazine and the author of “Dead Certain,” a study of the Bush administration that relied on numerous interviews with the president himself. Draper relates that Bush, who was apparently displeased with his depiction in “Dead Certain,” declined to be interviewed for this book. But Bush did not seek to hinder access to his former aides and Draper has performed prodigious research, including conducting interviews with several hundred former national security officials and scrutinizing recently declassified government documents. He does not provide any bold revelations, but offers the most comprehensive account of the administration’s road to war, underscoring that Bush was indeed The Decider when it came to Iraq — there was never any debate about not overthrowing Hussein.
The basis for conflict, Draper reminds us, had already been prepared in the late 1990s by what might be called the military-intellectual complex in Washington. Two key events occurred in 1998: The first was when Congress passed, and Bill Clinton signed into law, the Iraq Liberation Act, which the Iraqi expatriate Ahmad Chalabi and his neoconservative allies like Paul Wolfowitz had championed, and that made it official American policy to topple Saddam Hussein. The second was the establishment by Congress of the Rumsfeld Commission. It provided the former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and other hawks with a high-profile platform to castigate the C.I.A. for its putative shortsightedness about the looming perils posed by North Korea, Iran and Iraq. In particular the commission focused on a variety of doomsday scenarios that might allow Iraq to obtain nuclear weapons and target America “in a very short time.”
In those days, none of this seemed to matter that much. But after 9/11, it did. Drawing on their years of warnings about threats from abroad, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz teamed up with Vice President Dick Cheney to push for war and isolate the reluctant Powell.
Some of Draper’s most revealing passages focus on the intense pressure that Cheney and his chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, as well as the Defense Department official Douglas J. Feith, exerted on the intelligence agencies to buttress and even concoct the case that Saddam had intimate ties with Al Qaeda and that he possessed weapons of mass destruction. Draper presents the former C.I.A. director George Tenet in a particularly unflattering light. After being shunted aside during the Clinton presidency, Tenet was desperate to show Bush that he was an important and loyal soldier in the new war against terrorism. “Here we had this precious access,” one senior analyst told Draper, “and he didn’t want to blow it.” Tenet and his aides, Draper writes, “feared the prospect of President Bush being spoon-fed a bouillabaisse of truths, unverified stories presented as truths and likely falsehoods. On the other hand, the agency stood to lose its role in helping separate fact from fiction if it appeared to be close-minded.”
But Tenet ended up displaying canine fealty to Bush. In October 2002, when asked by the Senate intelligence chairman Bob Graham about whether any links between Saddam and Osama bin Laden really existed, Draper writes, Tenet “issued a reply that Cheney, Libby, Wolfowitz and Feith could only have dreamed of.” He declared, among other things, that there was “solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda going back a decade.”
For all the effort that Cheney and others expended in trying to depict Iraq as a dire menace, how much did the evidence and details actually matter? The cold, hard truth is that they didn’t. They were political Play-Doh, to be massaged and molded as Bush’s camarilla saw fit. Draper highlights the famous “slam dunk” meeting in the Oval Office in December 2002, when Tenet assured Bush that the evidence for Colin Powell’s upcoming speech at the United Nations Security Council in support of an invasion was solid.
In “Plan of Attack,” Bob Woodward described Bush as being beset by doubt about the case for war, and suggested that Tenet’s affirmation had been “very important.” Draper disagrees. The issue wasn’t the evidence. It was the spin: “Tenet’s words were ‘important’ only because they helped remove any doubt as to whether the C.I.A. could mount a solid case.” Bush’s thinking was as clear as it was simplistic. Saddam was a monster. It would be a bad idea to leave him in power. According to Draper, Bush’s “increasingly bellicose rhetoric reflected a wartime president who was no longer tethered to anything other than his own convictions.”
In his 2005 Inaugural Address, Bush tried to turn neoconservative ideology into official doctrine: “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” It wasn’t until the shellacking that the Republicans endured in the 2006 midterm elections that Bush began to abandon his fantasies about spreading peace, love and understanding across the Middle East. He fired Rumsfeld and shunted Cheney to the side.
If Draper expertly dissects the ferocious turf battles that took place within the administration over the war, he does not really seek to set it in a wider context other than to note rather benignly that “the story I aim to tell is very much a human narrative of patriotic men and women who, in the wake of a nightmare, pursued that most elusive of dreams: finding peace through war.” But there was more to it than that. Thanks to Donald Trump’s bungling, Bush may be benefiting from a wave of nostalgia for his presidency. But he was criminally culpable in his naïveté and incuriosity about the costs and consequences of war. At the same time, Cheney and Rumsfeld were inveterate schemers whose cynicism about going to war was exceeded only by their ineptitude in conducting it.
With American power at its apogee after the fall of the Soviet Union, their aim was to ensure American primacy, to establish what the Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer had called America’s unipolar moment. Instead, they squandered the opportunity. In the name of spreading democracy abroad, they were willing to countenance its degradation at home. Despite the debacle in Iraq, the very same truculent impulses continue to linger in the Trump administration, which has been steadily pushing for regime change in Iran. In this way, Draper provides a timely reminder of the dangers of embarking upon wars that can imperil America itself.